"Which just goes to show you," said Harry Morgan, picking up the key.
He turned casually, took one or two steps away from the registration desk, then--quite suddenly--did an about-face and snapped: "What happened to Jack Latrobe?"
"Who?" said the manager, his face gaping stupidly.
Harry Morgan knew human beings, and he was fairly certain that the manager couldn't have reacted that way unless he honestly had no notion of what Morgan was talking about.
He smiled sweetly. "Never you mind, dear boy. Thank you for the key." He turned again and headed for the elevator bank, confident that the manager would find the question he had asked about Jack Latrobe so completely meaningless as to be incapable of registering as a useful memory.
He was perfectly right.
The Belt Cities could survive without the help of Earth, and the Supreme Congress of the United Nations of Earth knew it. But they also knew that "survive" did not by any means have the same semantic or factual content as "live comfortably". If Earth were to vanish overnight, the people of the Belt would live, but they would be seriously handicapped. On the other hand, the people of Earth could survive--as they had for millennia--without the Belt Cities, and while doing without Belt imports might be painful, it would by no means be deadly.
But both the Belt Cities and the Earth knew that the destruction of one would mean the collapse of the other as a civilization.
Earth needed iron. Belt iron was cheap. The big iron deposits of Earth were worked out, and the metal had been widely scattered. The removal of the asteroids as a cheap source would mean that iron would become prohibitively expensive. Without cheap iron, Earth's civilization would have to undergo a painfully drastic change--a collapse and regeneration.
But the Belt Cities were handicapped by the fact that they had had as yet neither the time nor the resources to manufacture anything but absolute necessities. Cloth, for example, was imported from Earth. A society that is still busy struggling for the bare necessities--such as manufacturing its own air--has no time to build the huge looms necessary to weave cloth ... or to make clothes, except on a minor scale. Food? You can have hydroponic gardens on an asteroid, but raising beef cattle, even on Ceres, was difficult. Eventually, perhaps, but not yet.
The Belt Cities were populated by pioneers who still had not given up the luxuries of civilization. Their one weakness was that they had their cake and were happily eating it, too.
Not that Harry Morgan didn't realize that fact. A Belt man is, above all, a realist, in that he must, of necessity, understand the Laws of the Universe and deal with them. Or die.
Commodore Sir Harry Morgan was well aware of the stir he had created in the lobby of the Grand Central Hotel. Word would leak out, and he knew it. The scene had been created for just that purpose.
"Grasshopper sittin' on a railroad track, Singin' polly-wolly-doodle-alla-day! A-pickin' his teeth with a carpet tack, Singin' polly-wolly-doodle-alla-day!"
He sang with gusto as the elevator lifted him up to the seventy-fourth floor of the Grand Central Hotel. The other passengers in the car did not look at him directly; they cast sidelong glances.
This guy, they seemed to think in unison, is a nut. We will pay no attention to him, since he probably does not really exist. Even if he does, we will pay no attention in the hope that he will go away.
On the seventy-fourth floor, he did go away, heading for his room. He keyed open the door and strolled over to the phone, where a message had already been dropped into the receiver slot. He picked it up and read it.
COMMODORE SIR HARRY MORGAN, RM. 7426, GCH: REQUEST YOU CALL EDWAY TARNHORST, REPRESENTATIVE OF THE PEOPLE OF GREATER LOS ANGELES, SUPREME CONGRESS. PUNCH 33-981-762-044 COLLECT.
"How news travels," Harry Morgan thought to himself. He tapped out the number on the keyboard of the phone and waited for the panel to light up. When it did, it showed a man in his middle fifties with a lean, ascetic face and graying hair, which gave him a look of saintly wisdom.
"Mr. Tarnhorst?" Morgan asked pleasantly.
"Yes. Commodore Morgan?" The voice was smooth and precise.
"At your service, Mr. Tarnhorst. You asked me to call."
"Yes. What is the purpose of your visit to Earth, commodore?" The question was quick, decisive, and firm.
Harry Morgan kept his affability. "That's none of your business, Mr. Tarnhorst."
Tarnhorst's face didn't change. "Perhaps your superiors haven't told you, but--and I can only disclose this on a sealed circuit--I am in sympathy with the Belt Cities. I have been out there twice and have learned to appreciate the vigor and worth of the Belt people. I am on your side, commodore, in so far as it does not compromise my position. My record shows that I have fought for the rights of the Belt Cities on the floor of the Supreme Congress. Have you been informed of that fact?"
"I have," said Harry Morgan. "And that is precisely why it is none of your business. The less you know, Mr. Tarnhorst, the safer you will be. I am not here as a representative of any of the City governments. I am not here as a representative of any of the Belt Corporations. I am completely on my own, without official backing. You have shown yourself to be sympathetic towards us in the past. We have no desire to hurt you. Therefore I advise that you either keep your nose out of my business or actively work against me. You cannot protect yourself otherwise."
Edward Tarnhorst was an Earthman, but he was not stupid. He had managed to put himself in a position of power in the Welfare World, and he knew how to handle that power. It took him exactly two seconds to make his decision.
"You misunderstand me, commodore," he said coldly. "I asked what I asked because I desire information. The People's Government is trying to solve the murder of Commodore Jack Latrobe. Assuming, of course, that it was murder--which is open to doubt. His body was found three days ago in Fort Tryon Park, up on the north end of Manhattan Island. He had apparently jumped off one of the old stone bridges up there and fell ninety feet to his death. On the other hand, it is possible that, not being used to the effects of a field of point nine eight Standard gees, he did not realize that the fall would be deadly, and accidentally killed himself. He was alone in the park at night, as far as we can tell. It has been ascertained definitely that no representative of the People's Manufacturing Corporation Number 873 was with him at the time. Nor, so far as we can discover, was anyone else. I asked you to call because I wanted to know if you had any information for us. There was no other reason."
"I haven't seen Jack since he left Juno," Morgan said evenly. "I don't know why he came to Earth, and I know nothing else."
"Then I see no further need for conversation," Tarnhorst said. "Thank you for your assistance, Commodore Morgan. If Earth's Government needs you again, you will be notified if you gain any further information, you may call this number. Thank you again. Good-by."
The screen went blank.
How much of this is a trap? Morgan thought.
There was no way of knowing at this point. Morgan knew that Jack Latrobe had neither committed suicide nor died accidentally, and Tarnhorst had told him as much. Tarnhorst was still friendly, but he had taken the hint and got himself out of danger. There had been one very important piece of information. The denial that any representative of PMC 873 had been involved. PMC 873 was a manufacturer of biological products--one of the several corporations that Latrobe had been empowered to discuss business with when he had been sent to Earth by the Belt Corporations Council. Tarnhorst would not have mentioned them negatively unless he intended to imply a positive hint. Obviously. Almost too obviously.
Harry Morgan punched for Information, got it, got a number, and punched that.
"People's Manufacturing Corporation Ey-yut Seven Tha-ree," said a recorded voice. "Your desire, pu-leeze?"
"This is Commodore Jack Latrobe," Morgan said gently. "I'm getting tired of this place, and if you don't let me out I will blow the whole place to Kingdom Come. Good bye-eye-eye."
He hung up without waiting for an answer.
Then he looked around the hotel suite he had rented. It was an expensive one--very expensive. It consisted of an outer room--a "sitting room" as it might have been called two centuries before--and a bedroom. Plus a bathroom.
Harry Morgan, a piratical smile on his face, opened the bathroom door and left it that way. Then he went into the bedroom. His luggage had already been delivered by the lift tube, and was sitting on the floor. He put both suitcases on the bed, where they would be in plain sight from the sitting room. Then he made certain preparations for invaders.
He left the door between the sitting room and the bedroom open and left the suite.
Fifteen minutes later, he was walking down 42nd Street toward Sixth Avenue. On his left was the ancient Public Library Building. In the middle of the block, somebody shoved something hard into his left kidney and said. "Keep walking, commodore. But do what you're told."
Harry Morgan obeyed, with an utterly happy smile on his lips.
In the Grand Central Hotel, a man moved down the hallway toward Suite 7426. He stopped at the door and inserted the key he held in his hand, twisting it as it entered the keyhole. The electronic locks chuckled, and the door swung open.
The man closed it behind him.
He was not a big man, but neither was he undersized. He was five-ten and weighed perhaps a hundred and sixty-five pounds. His face was dark of skin and had a hard, determined expression on it. He looked as though he had spent the last thirty of his thirty-five years of life stealing from his family and cheating his friends.
He looked around the sitting room. Nothing. He tossed the key in his hand and then shoved it into his pocket. He walked over to the nearest couch and prodded at it. He took an instrument out of his inside jacket pocket and looked at it.
"Nothin'," he said to himself. "Nothin'." His detector showed that there were no electronic devices hidden in the room--at least, none that he did not already know about.
He prowled around the sitting room for several minutes, looking at everything--chairs, desk, windows, floor--everything. He found nothing. He had not expected to, since the occupant, a Belt man named Harry Morgan, had only been in the suite a few minutes.
Then he walked over to the door that separated the sitting room from the bedroom. Through it, he could see the suitcases sitting temptingly on the bed.
Again he took his detector out of his pocket. After a full minute, he was satisfied that there was no sign of any complex gadgetry that could warn the occupant that anyone had entered the room. Certainly there was nothing deadly around.
Then a half-grin came over the man's cunning face. There was always the chance that the occupant of the suite had rigged up a really old-fashioned trap.
He looked carefully at the hinges of the door. Nothing. There were no tiny bits of paper that would fall if he pushed the door open any further, no little threads that would be broken.
It hadn't really seemed likely, after all. The door was open wide enough for a man to walk through without moving it.
Still grinning, the man reached out toward the door.
He was quite astonished when his hand didn't reach the door itself.
There was a sharp feeling of pain when his hand fell to the floor, severed at the wrist.
The man stared at his twitching hand on the floor. He blinked stupidly while his wrist gushed blood. Then, almost automatically, he stepped forward to pick up his hand.
As he shuffled forward, he felt a snick! snick! of pain in his ankles while all sensation from his feet went dead.
It was not until he began toppling forward that he realized that his feet were still sitting calmly on the floor in their shoes and that he was no longer connected to them.
It was too late. He was already falling.
He felt a stinging sensation in his throat and then nothing more as the drop in blood pressure rendered him unconscious.
His hand lay, where it had fallen. His feet remained standing. His body fell to the floor with a resounding thud! His head bounced once and then rolled under the bed.
When his heart quit pumping, the blood quit spurting.
A tiny device on the doorjamb, down near the floor, went zzzt! and then there was silence.
When Representative Edway Tarnhorst cut off the call that had come from Harry Morgan, he turned around and faced the other man in the room. "Satisfactory?" he said.
"Yes. Yes, of course," said the other. He was a tall, hearty-looking man with a reddish face and a friendly smile. "You said just the right thing, Edway. Just the right thing. You're pretty smart, you know that? You got what it takes." He chuckled. "They'll never figure anything out now." He waved a hand toward the chair. "Sit down, Edway. Want a drink?"
Tarnhorst sat down and folded his hands. He looked down at them as if he were really interested in the flat, unfaceted diamond, engraved with the Tarnhorst arms, that gleamed on the ring on his finger.
"A little glass of whiskey wouldn't hurt much, Sam," he said, looking up from his hands. He smiled. "As you say, there isn't much to worry about now. If Morgan goes to the police, they'll give him the same information."
Sam Fergus handed Tarnhorst a drink. "Damn right. Who's to know?" He chuckled again and sat down. "That was pretty good. Yes sir, pretty good. Just because he thought that when you voted for the Belt Cities you were on their side, he believed what you said. Hell, I've voted on their side when it was the right thing to do. Haven't I now, Ed? Haven't I?"
"Sure you have," said Tarnhorst with an easy smile. "So have a lot of us."
"Sure we have," Fergus repeated. His grin was huge. Then it changed to a frown. "I don't figure them sometimes. Those Belt people are crazy. Why wouldn't they give us the process for making that cable of theirs? Why?" He looked up at Tarnhorst with a genuinely puzzled look on his face. "I mean, you'd think they thought that the laws of nature were private property or something. They don't have the right outlook. A man finds out something like that, he ought to give it to the human race, hadn't he, Edway? How come those Belt people want to keep something like that secret?"
Edway Tarnhorst massaged the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger, his eyes closed. "I don't know, Sam. I really don't know. Selfish, is all I can say."
Selfish? he thought. Is it really selfish? Where is the dividing line? How much is a man entitled to keep secret, for his own benefit, and how much should he tell for the public?
He glanced again at the coat of arms carved into the surface of the diamond. A thousand years ago, his ancestors had carved themselves a tiny empire out of middle Europe--a few hundred acres, no more. Enough to keep one family in luxury while the serfs had a bare existence. They had conquered by the sword and ruled by the sword. They had taken all and given nothing.
But had they? The Barons of Tarnhorst had not really lived much better than their serfs had lived. More clothes and more food, perhaps, and a few baubles--diamonds and fine silks and warm furs. But no Baron Tarnhorst had ever allowed his serfs to starve, for that would not be economically sound. And each Baron had been the dispenser of Justice; he had been Law in his land. Without him, there would have been anarchy among the ignorant peasants, since they were certainly not fit to govern themselves a thousand years ago.
Were they any better fit today? Tarnhorst wondered. For a full millennium, men had been trying, by mass education and by mass information, to bring the peasants up to the level of the nobles. Had that plan succeeded? Or had the intelligent ones simply been forced to conform to the actions of the masses? Had the nobles made peasants of themselves instead?
Edway Tarnhorst didn't honestly know. All he knew was that he saw a new spark of human life, a spark of intelligence, a spark of ability, out in the Belt. He didn't dare tell anyone--he hardly dared admit it to himself--but he thought those people were better somehow than the common clods of Earth. Those people didn't think that just because a man could slop color all over an otherwise innocent sheet of canvas, making outre and garish patterns, that that made him an artist. They didn't think that just because a man could write nonsense and use erratic typography, that that made him a poet. They had other beliefs, too, that Edway Tarnhorst saw only dimly, but he saw them well enough to know that they were better beliefs than the obviously stupid belief that every human being had as much right to respect and dignity as every other, that a man had a right to be respected, that he deserved it. Out there, they thought that a man had a right only to what he earned.
But Edway Tarnhorst was as much a product of his own society as Sam Fergus. He could only behave as he had been taught. Only on occasion--on very special occasion--could his native intelligence override the "common sense" that he had been taught. Only when an emergency arose. But when one did, Edway Tarnhorst, in spite of his environmental upbringing, was equal to the occasion.
Actually, his own mind was never really clear on the subject. He did the best he could with the confusion he had to work with.
"Now we've got to be careful, Sam," he said. "Very careful. We don't want a war with the Belt Cities."
Sam Fergus snorted. "They wouldn't dare. We got 'em outnumbered a thousand to one."
"Not if they drop a rock on us," Tarnhorst said quietly.
"They wouldn't dare," Fergus repeated.
But both of them could see what would happen to any city on Earth if one of the Belt ships decided to shift the orbit of a good-sized asteroid so that it would strike Earth. A few hundred thousand tons of rock coming in at ten miles per second would be far more devastating than an expensive H-bomb.
"They wouldn't dare," Fergus said again.
"Nevertheless," Tarnhorst said, "in dealings of this kind we are walking very close to the thin edge. We have to watch ourselves."
Commodore Sir Harry Morgan was herded into a prison cell, given a shove across the smallish room, and allowed to hear the door slam behind him. By the time he regained his balance and turned to face the barred door again, it was locked. The bully-boys who had shoved him in turned away and walked down the corridor. Harry sat down on the floor and relaxed, leaning against the stone wall. There was no furniture of any kind in the cell, not even sanitary plumbing.
"What do I do for a drink of water?" he asked aloud of no one in particular.
"You wait till they bring you your drink," said a whispery voice a few feet from his head. Morgan realized that someone in the cell next to his was talking. "You get a quart a day--a halfa pint four times a day. Save your voice. Your throat gets awful dry if you talk much."
"Yeah, it would," Morgan agreed in the same whisper. "What about sanitation?"
"That's your worry," said the voice. "Fella comes by every Wednesday and Saturday with a honey bucket. You clean out your own cell."
"I thought this place smelled of something other than attar of roses," Morgan observed. "My nose tells me this is Thursday."
There was a hoarse, humorless chuckle from the man in the next cell. "'At's right. The smell of the disinfectant is strongest now. Saturday mornin' it'll be different. You catch on fast, buddy."